The Rural Scotland in Focus 2012 report was published in early June – the second of what are planned to be biennial reports on rural Scotland, produced by the Scottish Agricultural College’s Rural Policy Unit.
Amongst other things, this attracted immediate attention in the results of the Vulnerability Index it had commissioned from a firm of consultants.
The headline from this was that two ‘remote small towns’ in Argyll were jointly ranked as the most vulnerable of the 90 across Scotland selected for study. They were Campbeltown in Kintyre, with a population of 4,840; and Dunoon in Cowal, with a population of 9,450.
Of the 90, Helensburgh, an ‘other urban’ area with a population of 15,590 was ranked 38. Tarbert, a ‘remote small town’ in Kintyre, with no population given, is ranked at 59. Oban, a ‘remote small town’- with a population of 8,120 is ranked at 69 (and, amusingly, is given responsibility for itself, with its local authority down as ‘Oban’).
Since the information above includes four of Argyll and Bute’s five major towns, it is worth noting that Rothesay in Bute was not one of the 90 settlements studied.
The 90 targets from across Scotland were selected because, whether they were a town or a settlement, they were ‘known to perform a service centre function for a local population and a surrounding rural hinterland’. There will be other such settlements – like Rothesay, but the study is indicative only in working with its chosen targets – which were not selected in any representative capacity.
The Vulnerability Index
This was drawn up from four indicators:
- the proportion of the local population of working age;
- the proportion of the local population claiming Job Seekers Allowance;
- the proportion of the local population working in the public sector;
- and a measure of income deprivation devised from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD)
The report says that while these focus only on four features of a place, they ‘reflect important current social and economic processes, in terms of ongoing weaknesses in the economy, public sector contraction and demographic shifts.
Vulnerability Index focus on public sector employment
We see two key weaknesses in the reliability of the pictures to be drawn from this Index.
The first relates to the issue of the level of public sector employment in each of the settlements chosen.
The study, quite reasonably, looks at this as an indication of economic weakness in the degree to which a settlement with a substantial percentage of such employment would be vulnerable to contraction in the public sector.
We suggest that the true vulnerability in this particular statistic is less the prospect of public sector retrenchment than of a feeble private sector.
Public sector employment traditionally takes up the slack where there is inadequate private sector employment and does so markedly in regions managed by the carrot and stick of pork-barrel local politics.
Both Dunoon and Campbeltown fall into this category and in both of them it has stifled independent responsibility for themselves.
Beyond this, public sector contraction is often threatened but rarely enacted to any marked degree. This pattern is driven by:
- political cost in votes;
- social cost in the knowledge that making hundreds of public sector employees redundant cannot transform them into entrepreneurs overnight and that the overall cost of resulting benefits payments would not necessarily result in significant saving;
- the impossibility of effecting a progressive shift from public to private sector in our current short-termist political system. This country suffers badly from the lack of long term development and contingency planning. This involves paying now for security and growth later. 4-5 year term governments, with eyes on survival in power, are politically unable and unwilling to commence such planning.
In reality, the public sector shambles on.
Where there is contraction in public sector employment, it comes from the practice begun under Margaret Thatcher’s long administration and enthusiastically adopted by successive governments of all persuasions. This is the policy of shifting as many public services as possible into the private sector; and in most cases, many of the employees transfer with the services.
This has cost jobs through profit taking by such contractors in the introduction of ‘efficiencies’ . An example here is the bussing of groups of cleaners from hospital to hospital for fast and time-limited ‘cleaning’ sessions. The true cost of such manoeuvres is now well known in the rise of superbug infestations.
Profits are increased by wages, staffing arrangements and short cuts not open to governments and local authorities under public sector regulations.
Such rearrangements have not actually saved the public sector much in monetary terms – but have heavily reduced responsibility.
Avoidance of responsibility has become a key political driver in creating such arms length arrangements, with the advantage of conferring what is called ‘deniabilty’ (‘It’s not out fault, guv.’) upon political administrations at all levels.
Overall, areas – like pretty well all of Argyll, that are heavily dependent on public sector employment are, in theory, especially vulnerable economically to public sector retraction. In practice, this doesn’t happen to any serious degree.
Vulnerability Index blindness to upstream resources
The second weakness in the Vulnerability Index is the lack of upstream scrutiny, of what is recently present and formally in the pipeline, with the capacity to contribute greater robustness to the local economies of the settlements studied.
In the case of Campbeltown, this is a marked deficiency. In the case of Dunoon it is also a deficiency, although to a lesser degree.
We see the reliability of the results of the Index ranking as affected by an arguably overstated prediction of decline in public sector employment; and by the absence of consideration of potential agents of economic growth already in place.
Here there is a distinction between the two Argyll towns jointly ranked as the most vulnerable.
In this latter case we see Dunoon as being in a more troubled situation than Campbeltown.
In the next articles to be published on this matter, we will show why this is what we see.
Pointers from the report
The very terms of selection of the 90 remote small towns and settlements chosen for the Vulnerability Index study have developmental prompts for each of them as to how they see themselves.
As quoted above, these towns were chosen because they were ‘known to perform a service centre function for a local population and a surrounding rural hinterland’.
That’s the bread and butter role – performing a service function for a local population and a surrounding rural hinterland. The better this foundation role is fulfillled, the more secure the base for growth.
Do Dunoon and Campbeltown know enough – from evidence rather than assumption – of the specific service function their respective ‘local populations’ and ‘surrounding rural hinterlands’ actually need and want them to provide?
There will be distinct differences in the needs and wants of each of these constituencies. You need and want differently from a place you can’t walk to than from one you can.
Discovering and servicing the needs and wants of these audiences is likely to go much of the way to servicing the needs and wants of visitors.
The two local populations and the two rural hinterlands are very different from each other. The proximity of Dunoon to Inverclyde and Glasgow via, ahem, its ferry services, gives it a different cast of mind, a different culture, more opportunities and more weaknesses.
Campbeltown’s remoteness from just about everywhere creates its own internal pressures and problems, is generally taken to be a weakness but could easily be a positive strength.
Dunoon has a history of bustle connected with the wider world, in business, in shipping, in day tripping and in war.
Campbeltown has a history of bustle in its industries like mining, fishing and its mercantile past, which, in its remoteness, made it self reliant and arguably inward looking.
Both have had to come to terms with a loss of what had seemed a secure economic identity that time left beached. Neither addressed this situation quickly or with vigour – but there is probably a natural rhythm of decline, fall and rebirth which resists acceleration.
Campbeltown seems to us to be in a position now where it has a moment of real potential to grasp – and must do so with energy, inventiveness, hard work and confidence, brooking no obstruction.
Dunoon’s not there yet, although we see the basis of a role it can adopt and for which there is a real need, should it choose.
These matters will be the subject of the next articles in this sequence.
The shape of things to come?
In posing a specific scenario, the Rural Scotland in Focus 2012 report asks a useful question about the remote rural towns which it studied.
‘What is the future for these towns as the population of rural areas ages, as public sector budget cuts bite, as people become more mobile, better connected and are encouraged to move to a low carbon economy, and as the community and voluntary sector is (sic) encouraged to take on greater ownership and management of local assets?’ What is the role of the private sector in the resilience of rural Scotland?
The impact of the private sector
The report offers the following useful insights into the role and specific presence of the private sector in remote rural towns.
- ’The private sector accounts for 83% of employment in remote rural Scotland, compared to 80% in accessible rural areas and 75% in the rest of Scotland. The private sector has increased in employment size in remote rural areas in recent years.
- ‘Rural areas have the highest density of businesses per head of population in Scotland, but these businesses are predominantly small. Microbusinesses provide 39% of employment in remote rural Scotland.
- ‘The primary sector still accounts for 17% of employment in the private sector in remote rural Scotland and 12% in accessible rural Scotland. Rural areas are also characterised by higher levels of self-employment, part-time and home-working and multiple job holding than the rest of Scotland.
- ‘ Data suggests that accessible rural businesses have higher growth ambitions than businesses in remote rural areas and the rest of Scotland, with an increasing number of businesses indicating that they wish to grow.
- ‘A strong private sector also contributes to the social and environmental resilience of rural Scotland and it has an important role to play in enhancing the quality of life of those living in rural locations. These broader roles need to be recognised in policy support for the rural private sector.
- ‘In rural areas, support for the private sector should be seen as one part of an integrated, place-based policy for rural areas. Such a place-based approach requires cross-sectoral working, with different levels of government working together and collaboration between the public, private and third sectors.’
These points not only provide data to illustrate the role played by the private sector in remote rural town economies but point unequivocally to where the enterprise agencies should be looking at placing their support for sustainability and growth in such places.
Collaborative working between small businesses to enable successful bidding for larger and more complex contracts has been an issue of interest to enterprise agencies in the recent past.
The problems encountered then should have left a body of experience to fuel a more focused and knowledgeable return to this field, in both funding and other forms of support.
The remote rural towns’ private sector clearly has the capacity to reward thoughtful strategic development.
Note: Here are the full versions of the two reports published to date by the Scottish Agricultural College’s Rural Policy Unit: